PALM BEACH, March 30, 2012—At the 2012 NFL Owners Meetings, there were two main topics of discussion. Commissioner Roger Goodell dealt with protecting the integrity of the league in the wake of the Saints bounty scandal. Yet even in good times where everything seems rosy, the main other National Football League self-obsession is ensuring competitive balance. Critics deride this as “parity,” but competitive balance is what makes the “Any Given Sunday” aspect of football its excitement.
Making the game cleaner and safer is vital, but so is ensuring that most teams have a realistic shot of winning games. This is why the NFL’s most important committee is the Competition Committee. The Chairman of this committee is Rich McKay, the current President and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons. Mr. McKay held a press conference; where a packed room of reporters listened to him discuss various issues involving every facet of the game.
One topic that kept coming up was the decision one year ago to move the kickoff from the 30 yard line up to the 35 yard line. Many injuries have been occurring on kickoff returns, and an increase in touchbacks was designed to reduce these injuries. After one season of implementation, Mr. McKay was pleased with the data he had in front of him.
Scoring per game was a combined 44.6 points. The kickoff rule did not affect scoring. Overall field position was only changed 1.5 yards. Overall, concussions were down 40% from a year earlier.
I asked Mr. McKay if he had consulted with any players this year to gauge their feedback on the kickoff rule. I pointed out that while Oakland Raiders star kicker Sebastian Janikowski would have a different opinion than Chicago Bears star kick returner Devon Hester, they were outliers. Mr. McKay stated that he had consulted with the players, and that there was “no significant pushback on moving the kickoff back to the 30.”
From an overall competitive standpoint, last year 7 of the 8 divisions featured new division winners. There were a record 18 comebacks by teams down by 14 points or more. The league is very pleased about this.
Further efforts to improve player safety came in the form of expanding “crackback” protection. There would be no blocking to a player’s head. This has been an issue with offensive and defensive linemen upon the snap of the ball. Players should hit each other in the midsection, not high or low. Mr. McKay cited retired Coach John Madden’s “injury safety timeline.” Coach Madden cited that there were too many blows to the head for defensive linemen.
The pace of the game provided much discussion. Last year all scoring plays were reviewed. This prevented coaches from having to use challenges. Because the clock stops anyway after a score, the overall time added to these reviews turned out to be exactly one second. Now the league has decided that all turnovers will be subjected to an automatic review. Again this is not expected to increase delays since the clock stops after a turnover. These reviews save time rather than cost time. Additionally, this again allows the coaches to save their challenges. Coaches will still be allowed to have two challenges per game, and if they win them both, will be given a third challenge. Last year a third challenge was used only one time all season.
One reporter asked if the league would consider applying the new automatic reviews to what can be described as “almost” scoring plays. Mr. McKay said the league discussed it but was not comfortable with making a change. He gave the example of a team facing 1st and goal at the one yard line and ten running up the middle. In this case the clock is running, so stopping play on 2nd and goal and perhaps again on 3rd and goal would be disruptive to the flow of the game. Unless the play is ruled a score on the field, it would be up to the coach to decide whether or not to throw the challenge flag.
A change to the offseason roster will increase the number of players allowed from 80 to 90. This will now include players who have been drafted but remained unsigned, a critical change. The roster must still be cut down to 53 players by the time the regular season begins.
One major change involved putting players on injured reserve. In the early 1990s teams were hiding players on injured reserve illegally. The league clamped down and changed the rule so that any player on IR would be gone for the season. This year a new modification would be implemented. Each team could take one marquee player and allow them to come back from IR. The player would be allowed to practice after 6 weeks and play after 8 weeks. This would be for major injuries, since something 6 weeks or less still leaves teams the option of placing players on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List. Verification of health would still be up to the team doctor.
The reason for this change would be if a “Rod Woodson” situation occurred. The former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback was injured in the opening game of the 1995 season. The Steelers refused to put him on injured reserve, and he came back and played in the Super Bowl later that year after missing the entire rest of the regular season and playoffs. The rule change would allow teams to open up a roster spot without having to shelve their star player.
Mr. McKay pointed out that none of these decisions are made lightly. “We vet all of our rules.” First rules have to be proposed, then submitted in written form, and then finally passed. This comes after plenty of investigation before and after rule changes are implemented. For those who think that improving player safety is making the game “not tough,” those people have never played football. “It’s a physical game.” Yet even a physical game must adapt to “cultural changes.”
A moment of levity occurred when one reporter asked if the pendulum had swung too far in favor of the offenses at the expense of the defenses. Player safety rules often focus on protecting quarterbacks. The reporter specifically wanted to know if Mr. McKay had any concerns about rookie quarterbacks entering the league and throwing for tons of yards. Mr. McKay responded, “Yes, if they are in my division.” His Falcons had to deal last year with rookie phenom Cam Newton of the division rival Carolina Panthers.
A couple of days after Mr. McKay’s press conference, the proposal to modify the overtime rules was accepted. Last year sudden death was changed for the playoffs as each team would get one chance with the ball unless the first team scored a touchdown. If the receiving team only kicked field goal, the other team would get one shot with the ball. The new rules were expanded to the regular season as well. So far the new rules from last year only had to be dealt with twice, and in neither occasion did the actual scenario develop.
One proposal to move the trading deadline from Week 6 until Week 8 was tabled until the next Owners Meeting in May.
The reason why the NFL is the king of all sports is because of competitive balance. In some sports, the same teams win every year while other teams have zero chance. The NFL for decades has taken great pains to try and ensure that as many of the teams as possible have a real shot of winning it all, or at least making the playoffs. “Worst to first” happens frequently in the NFL. With Rich McKay heading up the competition committee, those who desire competitive balance should be pleased.